I offered to read someone’s novel this week. Now, I’m coming off what I may call my classic women’s literature summer if I look back at this summer in any way some day. Driving to and from work, I’ve listened to works that spanned from Wuthering Heights and Tess of the D’urbervilles to a modern-day beach-read about a woman who gets drunk in LA in 2005-ish and wakes up in 1812 England (oh, and another where a woman is gifted with a trip to a three-week Austen-like camp). I also listened to a Louise Erdich book and one by an author I’d never heard of but that I liked very much, if only I could remember the name (Julia Glass–I knew it would come to me). My favorite books this year though, now that I think of it, were written by men. My kids and husband got me the CDs for Slumdog Millionaire and I could not tell you how much I loved that book–especially with the narrator reading it to me. If you have only seen the movie and were mesmorized by that, do yourself a favor and read the book–or listen to it. It is fabulous. The other favorite is The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb. This is a huge book and is anchored by the Columbine shooting but delves deep into the history of women in America–those who were imprisoned by bars and those who were imprisoned by gender roles.
Right now I am deep into listening to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” a book that, at some point in my teen life I thought was a kid’s book, but which I now listen to and wonder at its ever having been written and published at all–with it’s frank look at what turn of the century America was like and it turns out it wasn’t all that different than it is now–except we now frown on the public and casual use of ethnic/racial slurs and we don’t call unmarried mothers “dirty girls.”
So, I’m looking back at all that I’ve read over the last few months and noting the themes of oppression (poverty/class, gender, mental illness) and this is coloring my thoughts on how to respond to my friend’s first novel. What is floating in my head are characters so diverse but so fully fleshed that I know them: I know what they are wearing and why; I know that their hair will either fly free or be tightly coiled and why; I know that their desires expand their chests and their horizons and are sometimes purposefully drowned in bourbon, beer or responsibility; and I know that the main character will grow in love and understanding and in opportunity through a revelation of their innermost character. Or something like that. I know that they will disappont themselves and others and that others will provide ample opportunity to disappoint them. And I know that I have come to care what happens (well, maybe not so much with Wuthering Heights, a book I found so disturbing I just wanted to be done with it and with the load of them, but that’s another post).
And I know I’d like to say this to my friend: I read every page of the book because I know you and I said I would. If I did not know you, I would have stopped reading somewhere between paragraphs three and four. But I kept reading, asking myself every 30 pages or so–is anything ever going to happen? There is a story here, but it is buried in words and thoughts and ideas. I don’t know these characters very well and, frankly, I don’t want to, as written. All the characters are two-dimensional and rather predictable. And DON”T write in dialect. Ack! And, if your character shouldn’t know a word don’t write “and I don’t even know where that word came from.”
Here’s what I will say: If you are writing this story to show that ideas matter, you miss the mark. You spend too much time telling us that ideas matter and too little time showing how that happens. Not all dialog is spoken–and no one, save a college professor, speaks in three paragraph spurts. People are more than their religion. A well-written, three-dimensional fundamentalist character will provide more depth than a characterization/stereotype. The first rule of writing fiction, as far as I’m concerned, is that you msut love your characters–even the shitty ones–they are there for a reason and will haunt you if you don’t do them justice. Besides, I wish I remember who said this and I don’t feel like googling right now, but your going to spend a lot of time with these people–you should have respect for them and show it. (Hemingway? John Irving?)
I miss writing fiction. I miss the way my characters became real while I wrote them, how I looked forward to spending time with them and learning, with them, what they needed to learn. I miss transcribing those characters, because, once I knew them, their lives seemed to play out in front of me. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t a very good fiction writer–but am a good reader of fiction. I assume that people have a story to tell and that that story is about who we are as a people. I will follow an author just about anywhere if they lead me there with a character who is true and likeable in his/her humanity (even if not always acting as such, see list above for references to this). A novel is about ideas and is about transcendence, but, fundamentally, it is about the people who have ideas and who transcend. It will not work the other way around.
Okay. Thanks for listening if you still are. I’ve worked this issue through. On to church.